The need to increase the nation's primary care workforce, and the presence of large numbers of international medical graduates (IMGs) who encounter barriers to licensure as physicians, have led to consideration of ways that IMGs might practice as physician assistants (PAs). Several states have explored regulatory changes that would allow IMGs to obtain PA certification through equivalency mechanisms or accelerated educational programs. In California, surveys in 1980, 1993, and 1994 collected information about the interest and preparedness among IMGs seeking PA certification. These surveys revealed that few of the IMGs were interested in becoming PAs as a permanent career, and few could show a commitment to primary care of the underserved. Of the 50 IMGs accepted into California's PA programs in recent years, 62% had academic or personal difficulties. Only 34 IMGs became certified, and all accepted jobs in primary care specialties. Two preparatory programs in California have assessed the readiness of unlicensed IMGs to enter PA programs, and they have shown that the participants did not demonstrate knowledge or clinical skills equivalent to those expected of licensed PAs. Therefore, policymakers should not consider that IMGs are or can easily become the equivalent of PAs without additional professional training in accredited PA programs. Preparatory programs appear to lessen the barriers to PA training for a few IMGs. In times of scarce resources for training, however, these programs may not be the best use of public funds to increase the primary care workforce.